To say Peter Molyneux is a moral game developer is to be interpreted literally. The idea of incorporating morality – the choices one makes between “good” and “bad” behavior and the results of such personal actions – into gameplay has fascinated him throughout his career. While his work spans various genres (either as designer, programmer or producer), he is most known for his “god games,” of which Populous and Black & White are best associated with his style and creative passions.
It’s unanimous within critical circles that Molyneux has been an influential innovator when it comes to game design. It’s also been lobbed that, at his worst, quite a number of his games have turned out to be failed, though interesting, experiments.
In April 2006, Microsoft purchased Lionhead Studios. Molyneux founded Lionhead in 1997, after leaving another game development firm he founded, Bullfrog Productions. Despite its being absorbed by the Microsoft collective, he still remains with the company.
Over the 2006 holiday season, the “god of god games” took a moment to reflect with The Escapist on the approaching 25-year mark of his career. Blessed be the gamer with the power to be divine, so giveth Molyneux.
The Escapist: Since Microsoft’s acquisition of Lionhead, what have your day-to-day duties been? Are you still actively involved in game design?
Peter Molyneux: Since the acquisition, I’ve been able to focus far more on game design. I’ve always had two roles at Lionhead – one as the head of the company and the other as head of design. While we were independent, there was a huge amount of work needed to run a company of 200 people. Now [that] we’re a part of Microsoft, there is a huge team of people in Redmond helping me to do that. This has enabled me to focus much more on Fable 2 and our other super secret game.
TE: Early in your career, starting with Populous, the concept of the “god game” became synonymous with you. This label has been also ascribed to your most recent titles – like Black & White – and with your overall game design sensibility. Though there have always been games made by others that featured “god-like” game play, why is it that your games get that label the most? Or, do you think it’s not valid?
PM: My games Populous, Powermonger, Theme Park, Black & White and The Movies are obviously strongly god games. Other games such as Syndicate, Magic Carpet and Fable are not. So I’ve done more god games than any other genre. But it is kind of my dream to bring elements of god games to games like Fable, and I’d like to think, although it is not strictly a god game, you can still [play] elements of a god game in it.
TE: Personally, what about games where the player can determine the morality and guide the lives of other beings appeals to you? Basically, why do you like “playing God”?
PM: Morality is a fascinating issue. The greatest of all fantasies, in my book, is being able to play [a] god in world that recognizes you as that. A world where morality changes around you and which starts to craft itself around what an individual player is like, rather than expect players to be a certain type of character. I guess my long-term ambition is that morals in a game are constantly shaped by the person playing it, which kind of means that the player is more like a god.
TE: What’s your feeling about religion and videogames, and the likely controversy surrounding it? There’s been recent fuss over the Left Behind PC game, which makes any controversy that Populous had – over its “savior” character – back in its day very minor in comparison.
PM: I think religion is an intrinsic part of the world and part of our evolution. What is fascinating is that every culture has its own interpretation of religion, and that religion has featured throughout history. As cave drawings show, even as early as then primitive man had his own perception of religion. The problem with religion is that it is one of the easiest ways to offend the vast majority of people, and so any videogame, whether it be Populous or Left Behind, has to realize that any reference or treatment of religion is risky, to say the least.
TE: Your fellow contemporary Will Wright has made a name for himself with games that, in their essence, are “god games” as well – especially The Sims and Spore. But his body of work appears to lack the morality-as-gameplay element seen in your best-known titles. What are your thoughts about this?
PM: I think it’s easier to create a story and character around fixed morals in the case of story-based games.
Will’s games are some of the most brilliant ever created. I think it would be easy for him to create a moral game, but he has chosen not to do this for perhaps very good gameplay reasons. Will’s games are interesting, because most of his games are based on current issues and about characters you create. He does, however, allow you to do some unspeakably vicious things to your characters!
TE: How do you feel about the criticism that a number of your games “over-promised” compared to the final product (e.g., Fable), which critics felt lacked a bit in gameplay?
PM: Fable proved to be a really hard game to finish, because we had never done an RPG before and had never ever done a console game before, and we were under a great deal of pressure at the end.
TE: Is this the result of you having to balance between needing to promote a game early in its development vs. what the finished title turns out to be?
PM: I do get into an awful lot of trouble for doing this. It’s just that I get so passionate and excited when I’m explaining a game to anyone, be they a journalist or someone I just met down the pub. The root of this is probably that I genuinely want to create the best game ever, but such a statement requires an explanation about how this will be possible.
I have tried to “restrain” myself in recent interviews, but found it really hard to answer a simple question like “Why are you doing Fable 2?” without launching into a detailed explanation. When I meet with the team, usually I say, “Let’s make Fable 2 the greatest game ever.” At least I’m consistent! Fable 2 in my opinion – here we go again – will live up to expectations.
TE: The vast majority of your games were developed originally for the PC platform. Can you explain why this has been the case?
PM: Part of the reason for our PC past is where we started game development. Populous began on the Amiga and moved to the PC, and this was our home for a very long time.
TE: Did you feel the game consoles released over the past two decades lacked the capabilities to present the kind of games you wanted to make?
PM: It wasn’t that we didn’t like consoles, but it seemed a very long stretch from PC to console development. Then came the Xbox, and I could see that this console shared many characteristics with a PC, and so it was a very familiar development environment. So, we were persuaded to make the move from PC development to console development. Now, with almost 2.5 million units [of Fable] sold, I think we made the right choice.
TE: What do you think about the next-generation of consoles? Any of them interest you as a game developer?
PM: For any game developer, any innovation is fascinating, and this generation is the most fascinating of all. For me, personally, the fact that a huge number of consoles are now connected to each other, connecting players to friends and the world, is a huge deal for me. I think that we are seeing the seeds of what will be a huge change in gaming over the next 10 years.
TE: What can you reveal about your top-secret project – if not a title or game concept, at least the theme or idea behind it?
PM: The only thing I can reveal is that I’m developing something new. There are two teams at Lionhead, one of which is working on Fable 2 and the other working on this new project.
TE: You’ve made videogames professionally for 25 years and today are regarded as an influential figure and pioneer in the still-young history of videogames. Looking back over the years, what are your thoughts on this notoriety – for example, how do you feel about the way the media has depicted you?
PM: I still have to pinch myself that people still want to hear what I have to say.
Maybe the reason for that is that I am still as enthusiastic about computer games as ever, and that enthusiasm is, I hope, what comes across when people talk to me. If I ever lost that, the best thing to do would be to lock me in the attic and throw away the key!
The closest Howard Wen has been to being with the game gods was the time he interviewed John Romero in his penthouse office, high atop downtown Dallas. It was like being inside Mount Olympus overlooking the Sim City-like land below.